Wednesday, May 28, 2008

To outline or not to outline, that is the question~

Who would think Stephen Hawking could help you be a better writer? Dave Swinford uses a scientific principle to explain how order and chaos can affect your writing.

Order and Chaos
by Dave Swinford

Do you outline? This was the question posed to a group of published novelists. Answers varied from the extremes of "I just try to write a minimum number of words each day, and I never know exactly what will appear when I begin to write," to "I always try to have an outline before I begin to write." However, even those who utilized an outline agreed that one had to be flexible. At some point in the process, characters might begin to assert their independence and simply refuse to follow the outline.

Most of these novelists have written and successfully published multiple novels, and there seemed to be unanimous agreement that characters often did become independent, refusing to behave as the author intended, and when this happened, the author needed to listen because more often than not, the characters were correct. Characters asserting their independence was a good thing. It often made for a stronger, more layered novel.

Stephen Hawking has said that the science of this 21st century will be the science of complexity. This new science asserts that if there is too much order, things become so stable that they become fixed and unchanging. If there is too much chaos, the lack of any stable framework means that nothing is reliable or firmly fixed. Thus, life can only exist at the balance point between order and chaos.

At the balance point, there is a reliable framework, a day-to-day flow of events that enables life to develop and thrive. There is a reasonable expectation that events will follow some stable and reliable patterns. Yet, there is enough chaos or uncertainty to provoke change, especially the sort of changes we think of as evolution.

In a sense, a thoroughly outlined novel may bee too stable and too fixed. It may lack a feeling of natural flow or of evolving in an organic manner. Perhaps the introduction of some chaos in the form of independent behavior on the part of certain characters may be a beneficial thing. It makes the novel more organic and more reflective of the natural tensions that generate life.

To have one's characters acting as an element of chaos may be a way in which our creative consciousness introduces aspects and depths that we never considered when mapping out and outlining the story. As those published novelists observed, this can improve a story. How this actually happens, the why of characters attaining independence, would, I think, provide a good topic for a future blog essay.

In the meantime, perhaps it will be enough to allow for a bit of chaos in your planning and execution of your next story.

For an introduction and basic tutorial on complexity, click here.

1 comment:

Rick Bylina said...

Characters acting as if conscious is the writer's unconscious reacting to the inate fact that what they are currently writing is somehow flawed and that action needs to be taken.

For example, a talkative character is slowing down the action telling Madame Marcy a story qualifying his backgroud to solve her dead husband's murder. The writer is falling asleep at the computer, but his subconscious rushes to the rescue by having an off-page character walk in and shoot the Chatty Cathy.

"Why'd you do that?" MM lights a cigarette.

"My bad." The P.I. shoves the pistol into his pants and then jumps up and down in pain before withdrawing the warm gun.

"So, you think your hot stuff?" The woman stares at his crotch and snuffs out her cigarette. She steps over the prone body and sashays out of the room. The P.I. follows like a cowboy too long in the saddle.


What happens next is up to the author, but now ther is meaning to the boring scene that will probably be shortened even more during the draft. Characters don't live; the writer's subconscious directs them.

-rick b

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